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2016 running back fantasy preview: High-quality production still key to winning

Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson are at different ends of their respective careers, but both slot in as elite fantasy running backs in 2016. Getty Images

If it seems like fantasy running back values keep declining, it's because they are. Last year, running backs accounted for 21.7 percent of overall fantasy points, the position's lowest total in that category dating back to at least 2001.

Even with this reduced level of importance, it's difficult to win a fantasy league without getting top-quality running back production, so let's take a tiered look at this position to see where prospects should be valued in most draft rooms.

Elite

Adrian Peterson was arguably the most consistent fantasy running back last year, as he was tied for the lead in games with 10-plus points at this position (11). The only concern here is if his 2,381 career carries catch up with him, but there aren't any signs pointing in that direction yet.

A case can be made for Devonta Freeman to be the No. 1 fantasy running back, as he was tied with Peterson for the lead in games of 10-plus points, placed third in running back receptions (73) and should get better run blocking with the addition of center Alex Mack. The possibility of splitting carries with Tevin Coleman may be Freeman's only negative.

ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell recently noted that it is quite difficult to overcome multi-ligament injuries like the one Le'Veon Bell suffered. Bell's upside potential keeps him at the elite level, but this is a situation worth monitoring closely.

Todd Gurley ranked fifth in running back fantasy points last season despite missing three games and getting good run blocking on only 31.5 percent of his carries (ranked 39th out of 44 qualifying backs). As great as he was last year, the sky is the limit for Gurley.

The Dallas Cowboys have a history of leaning on a bell cow running back whenever possible. Ezekiel Elliott's 562 carries the past two seasons says he is up to that task. He also can make an impact in the passing game, as his 55 receptions the past two years ranked tied for 18th among Power 5 running backs.

Lower-tier RB1/upper-tier RB2 options

David Johnson is one of only seven running backs to post a game with 40 or more points in the past five years. That elite upside potential is somewhat offset by the presence of Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, two backs capable of claiming their share of carries.

He may not make a lot of top 10 running back lists, but Mark Ingram placed eighth in running back fantasy points per game last season (11.9) and ranks eighth in running back fantasy points over the past two seasons (297).

Doug Martin was second to only Gurley last year in my good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric that measures how productive backs are when given good run blocking. His 10.0 mark here is an elite mark indicative of the breakaway skill Martin brings to the table. A caveat is the presence of Charles Sims, whose 9.3 GBYPA gives the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a potential second breakaway threat capable of taking some carries away from Martin.

Poor conditioning slowed Eddie Lacy last season, and yet he still managed to post four double-digit fantasy-point games in the final seven weeks. Lacy is now back to his rookie playing weight in an effort to capitalize on his contract year and thus could once again challenge for upper-tier RB1 status.

Thomas Rawls showed glimpses of his potential with five double-digit fantasy-point games last year, but buyers should be a bit wary. Seattle has significant offensive line issues and drafted C.J. Prosise, a prospect capable of taking carries from Rawls.

Last year, Jonathan Stewart finally seemed to solve his durability issues, as he and Peterson were the only running backs to rack up at least eight games with 20 or more carries. The problem for Stewart is the foot injury that ended his season was exacerbated during the Super Bowl and could impact his 2016 campaign.

The Buffalo Bills ranked fourth in the league in GBYPA (9.1) and have kept their offensive line intact. That should help LeSean McCoy in his efforts to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2015 season.

Lamar Miller tallied only 18 fantasy points in the first four weeks of the season, yet he ended up ranking sixth in running back fantasy scoring (173). He has a chance to become a bell cow in Houston's rush-heavy offense.

There may not be a riskier RB1 prospect than Jamaal Charles. He's 29 years old and coming off his second ACL injury in five years. The Kansas City Chiefs also ranked sixth in rushing yards (1,495) and tied for second in rushing touchdowns (14) in the games after Charles left the lineup last year. Look for Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West to claim their share of the Chiefs' rushing workload.

Is Carlos Hyde a good fit for a Chip Kelly offense? Hyde doesn't do much in the way of pass catching (a mere 57 receptions in his combined college and pro careers) and his career high in touches in a single season is 224, back in his senior campaign at Ohio State. Hyde has an RB1 ceiling if he holds up to the fast pace, but if he isn't up to the task, Kelly's track record says this will be a split-carry backfield.

RB2/RB3/RB4 candidates

C.J. Anderson ended the 2014 season as maybe the most explosive running back in the NFL. The arrow has pointed downward since then, in part due to injuries and the collapse of the Broncos' passing game. Anderson could turn things back around, but he may have to battle Devontae Booker for carries.

One might think the Oakland Raiders would be happy with Latavius Murray after he posted 1,298 yards from scrimmage last season. That doesn't seem to be the case, however, as the Silver and Black have talked of reducing Murray's workload, in part by giving more carries to breakaway threat DeAndre Washington.

New England Patriots running backs have given fantasy owners headaches for a very long time, but Dion Lewis could change that. He racked up 40 points in standard leagues and 55 points in PPR leagues in the first three weeks of last season, totals that ranked tied for sixth and third, respectively, among running backs. Keep an eye on him in camp to see how he is recovering from November's torn ACL.

There may not be a player more reliant on scoring plays than Jeremy Hill. Last year, he ranked second among running backs in fantasy points on plays starting at or inside the 5-yard line (58) and 38 in fantasy points on plays starting outside the 5-yard line (114). This combination puts him squarely into boom or bust territory at this tier.

Matt Forte continued his bell-cow ways with the Bears last year (262 touches in only 13 games), but his 7.1 GBYPA ranked 40th out of 44 qualifying running backs. The New York Jets aren't likely to use him in a bell-cow role and could even make him part of a committee if Forte's production level doesn't dramatically increase.

Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase has indicated Jay Ajayi has taken charge of the running back battle. Ajayi should also get a huge upgrade in run blocking, as the 28.8 percent good blocking rate he saw last year would have rated as third worst had Ajayi received enough carries to qualify. Add it up and Ajayi has breakout candidate potential.

Jeremy Langford is the epitome of a quantity over quality running back. He ranked dead last in GBYPA in 2015 (6.2) and had the second-worst drop percentage in the league (9.8 percent). Chicago head coach John Fox has a history of using a platoon or committee backfield, and these numbers will motivate him to use that approach again.

Rashad Jennings ranked fifth in running back fantasy scoring over the last four weeks of the 2015 season (67) and is slated to take on either a lead-back or bell-cow role. Before jumping on this bandwagon, do note that Jennings is 31 years old, has competition for the starting job from Paul Perkins and has never tallied 200 or more carries in a single season.

On the plus side, Matt Jones was one of only six backs to have at least two games of 24 or more fantasy points last year. On the minus side, Jones ranked last in yards per carry among running backs with 100 or more carries (3.4) and had the third-highest fumbles-per-carry rate in that same group.

Last year, Giovani Bernard received good run blocking on 48.1 percent of his carries, a total that was easily the highest in the league. It will be hard for that trend to continue, so Bernard could regress from his high-end RB3 status.

Fantasy owners looking for undervalued bounce-back candidates should slot Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah high on their draft priority list. Both of these backs had incredibly disappointing rookie campaigns, but they still have the inside track to lead-back or bell-cow roles on their respective clubs.

Depth options

It's hard to find an RB3 candidate with more question marks than Frank Gore. He's 33 years old, has 2,702 career carries and plays behind an Indianapolis Colts run-blocking wall that ranked 26th in my good run blocking rate metric last season (34.6 percent).

The Philadelphia Eagles may end up trying to turn injury-prone Ryan Mathews into a workhorse back, but savvy fantasy owners will keep Wendell Smallwood on their long-shot upside candidate list. Smallwood led all Power 5 backs in percentage of rushes that gained five or more yards (50.9 percent) and 10 or more yards (24.5 percent).

For those fantasy owners tempted to place an unusually high value on LeGarrette Blount due to his goal-line usage in the high-powered Patriots offense, consider this. Blount ranked tied for 21st among running backs in points scored on goal-to-go plays, but James White equaled his total (25) and Lewis came close to it (23). This indicates Blount could have ample competition for the goal-line role.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 3 rating in good run blocking rate last year (42.5 percent) helped make DeAngelo Williams the most valuable handcuff in fantasy football last year. Given Bell's aforementioned injury woes, Williams could once again be the most valuable handcuff.

Derrick Henry set single-season SEC records in rushing yards (2,219) and rushing touchdowns (28) last year, but ranked fifth among high-volume SEC running backs (100 or more carries) in yards per carry (5.6) and percentage of rushes gaining five or more yards (41.3 percent). This shows his value is heavily reliant on quantity, something that might be hard to come by in a crowded Tennessee Titans backfield that includes likely lead back DeMarco Murray.

Darren McFadden finally proved he was up to workhorse status by racking up a career-high 239 rush attempts last year while catching 40 passes. Dallas rewarded this effort by drafting Elliott and potentially relegating McFadden to spot duty.

PPR candidates

A word of advice to those fantasy owners in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues. The 19 backs who racked up 40 or more receptions last season accounted for 38 percent of all running back receptions. What this means is most of the additional PPR value at this position will be concentrated in a small volume of candidates.

It's impossible to catch a pass without running a route, so one way to value running back PPR options is by looking at which backs ran the most routes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the top running backs in this metric last year were Danny Woodhead (390 routes run), Williams (371), Freeman (357), Johnson (312), Miller (305), Shane Vereen (298), Theo Riddick (289), Gore (281), Forte (279) and T.J. Yeldon (279).